Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation

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Overview

What does it mean for scientists to truly understand, rather than to merely describe, how the world works? Michael Strevens proposes a novel theory of scientific explanation and understanding that overhauls and augments the familiar causal approach to explanation. What is replaced is the test for explanatorily relevant causal information: Strevens discards the usual criterion of counterfactual dependence in favor of a criterion that turns on a process of progressive abstraction away from a fully detailed, physical causal story. The augmentations include the introduction of a new, non-causal explanatory relevance relation—entanglement—and an independent theory of the role of black-boxing and functional specification in explanation.

The abstraction-centered notion of difference-making leads to a rich causal treatment of many aspects of explanation that have been either ignored or handled inadequately by earlier causal approaches, including the explanation of laws and other regularities, with particular attention to the explanation of physically contingent high-level laws, idealization in explanation, and probabilistic explanation in deterministic systems, as in statistical physics, evolutionary biology, and medicine.

The result is an account of explanation that has especially significant consequences for the higher-level sciences: biology, psychology, economics, and other social sciences.

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Editorial Reviews

Brian Weatherson
Depth is an excellent book--the best treatment of explanation in the philosophical literature. Strevens draws on a wealth of scientific and philosophical knowledge to craft a theory that is true to the facts about how scientific explanation actually works, while avoiding the traps that have snared previous attempts at providing a systematic theory.
Choice - C. D. Kay
Strevens proposes a substantial revision and upgrading of traditional causal approaches to explanation in the sciences. Focusing on what he calls "causal difference-making," the non-causal relation "entanglement," and requiring progressive abstraction toward deeper explanatory models employing lower-level causal laws, Strevens outlines a theory of explanation that will no doubt attract a significant amount of interest--especially among those interested in the structure of the biological and social sciences (for which it has interesting consequences)...Although the concepts are not easy ones, and even though the arguments are directed at professionals, undergraduates will be able to read this book with profit. The very brief final chapter on the aesthetics of explanation raises thought-provoking questions that readily invite response from students, other philosophers, or possibly Strevens himself. In short, this is a valuable book for any program that includes the philosophy of science.
Quarterly Review of Biology - Jeremy S. Kirby
This volume will prove indispensable for philosophers working in the field of explanation...Strevens's book provides an excellent survey of recent argumentation on causal explanation with a rigorous defense of his own brand of explanation.
Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews - Stephan Hartmann And Jonah N. Schupbach
[An] impressive book...Depth provides many intellectually stimulating and highly original thoughts on a number of critical and venerable philosophical topics. Any philosopher of science today will surely find it to be a rewarding read.
Choice

Strevens proposes a substantial revision and upgrading of traditional causal approaches to explanation in the sciences. Focusing on what he calls "causal difference-making," the non-causal relation "entanglement," and requiring progressive abstraction toward deeper explanatory models employing lower-level causal laws, Strevens outlines a theory of explanation that will no doubt attract a significant amount of interest—especially among those interested in the structure of the biological and social sciences (for which it has interesting consequences)...Although the concepts are not easy ones, and even though the arguments are directed at professionals, undergraduates will be able to read this book with profit. The very brief final chapter on the aesthetics of explanation raises thought-provoking questions that readily invite response from students, other philosophers, or possibly Strevens himself. In short, this is a valuable book for any program that includes the philosophy of science.
— C. D. Kay

Quarterly Review of Biology

This volume will prove indispensable for philosophers working in the field of explanation...Strevens's book provides an excellent survey of recent argumentation on causal explanation with a rigorous defense of his own brand of explanation.
— Jeremy S. Kirby

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

[An] impressive book...Depth provides many intellectually stimulating and highly original thoughts on a number of critical and venerable philosophical topics. Any philosopher of science today will surely find it to be a rewarding read.
— Stephan Hartmann and Jonah N. Schupbach

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674031838
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/15/2009
  • Pages: 536
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Strevens is Professor of Philosophy at New York University.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures and Table Pt. I The Causal Approach to Explanation
1 Approaches to Explanation 3
2 Causal and Explanatory Relevance 41 Pt. II The Kairetic Account of Explanation
3 The Kairetic Account of Difference-Making 69
4 The Kairetic Account of Explanation 117
5 Extending the Kairetic Account 142
6 Event Explanation and Causal Claims 181 Pt. III Explanation of Laws and Regularities
7 Regularity Explanation 219
8 Abstraction in Regularity Explanation 297 Pt. IV Probabilistic Explanation
9 Approaches to Probabilistic Explanation 335
10 Kairetic Explanation of Frequencies 367
11 Kairetic Explanation of Single Outcomes 424 Pt. V Valediction
12 Looking Outward 459
13 Looking Inward 473 Notes 477 References 495 Index 505
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